Digital Ocean

The 'digital ocean' concept (Credit: Liquid Robotics, a Boeing company)
The 'digital ocean' concept (Credit: Liquid Robotics, a Boeing company)

Covering 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and extending to a maximum depth of about 11,000 metres (36,000 ft), the ocean remains largely unexplored by man. Despite this, mankind now seems to want to digitise the ocean with massive networks of Internet of Things devices. The United Nations, NATO and a growing number of military organisations across the planet have plans to create a ‘digital ocean’.

No one doubts that the ocean is no less than a vital resource for our planet. However, it is also abused, contested, plundered, polluted, disputed and, of course, used as a medium for military conflict. Therefore, the race is already on to create the biggest and most powerful ocean IoT network, capable of tracking all natural, human and robotic activity below and above water. Recent advances in autonomous robotics, mesh networks and AI-managed data applications, have made it both practical to create data collection devices in enough numbers, and to have the means to process the resulting huge volumes of data.

China and the USA’s use of underwater drones for oceanographic surveys has ramped up over the past ten years, with both nations now running fleets of drones to map the sea floor. However, the recent acceleration in drone technologies and adoption by naval forces, has quickly brought focus back to naval operations and monitoring adversaries in the open ocean, or in contested areas of water.

The US Navy galvanised efforts to embrace artificial intelligence, data and unmanned systems in 2021, with the formation of Task Force 59. Stood up under the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and based out of Bahrain and Aqaba, Jordan, the task force has fast-tracked the integration of new technologies into the navy. From smart buoys to high-speed autonomous interceptors, and from sail and wave powered surveillance craft to some of the most powerful AI data analysis systems, TF 59 has intensively tested new technologies pioneering best practices for the US Navy.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has also been trialing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). China began intensive development of unmanned craft over a decade ago and the navy has become a major customer. Seafaring nations of the Asia Pacific have monitored China’s deployment of fleets of drones over the past few years. Meanwhile, the PLA Navy has also been developing a new class of amphibious assault ship, capable of launching multiple UAVs.

Despite the advantage of deploying the latest technology, numerous incidents over recent years have highlighted that creating a digital ocean environment does have its vulnerabilities. China seized a US UUV operating in the South China Sea in 2016. In late 2020, an Indonesian fisherman netted a Chinese Sea Wing (or Haiyi), apparently one of a fleet of UUVs deployed in the area. More recently, Iran’s Air Defense Forces seized TF 59 Saildrones in the Fifth Fleet area of operations on two separate occasions.

It remains to be seen whether the digital ocean will inspire more global collaboration, or simply open up new areas of friction. However, in the short term, many leading naval forces will be vying for the strategic advantage to be gained by improved intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.

by Carrington Malin